The Cheney Letters: The Night the Willys Went Skinny-Dipping
by Stuart Cheney
In late February of 2012 I received a letter bearing the name of Stuart Cheney. A native of Brattleboro, Vermont, Stuart wrote to tell me that he enjoyed my memoir piece “Slaughter Daughter” featured in the Winter, 2012 issue of this magazine. I was flattered and surprised to receive such a heartfelt message, especially in the increasingly rare form of a hand-written letter. In the months that followed, Stuart and I became pen-pals. Nearly every week, I received a carefully addressed stamped envelope from him, each containing a new tale about Stuart’s life. Over the next few issues, please enjoy some segments of what I tenderly refer to as “The Cheney Letters.” I hope you are as blessed by these authentic recollections of Vermont farm life as I have been. –Lindsay Debach
The Night the Willys Went Skinny-Dipping
I have a first cousin named Buddy. He lives in Roadsboro, Vermont and most every year Bud comes over to my house for a few weeks visit, and I go over to his house for a week in the summer. Well, my father had found me a nice car that belonged to a lady who worked at the furniture shop with him. He knew she kept the car and didn’t drive it. So, Dad asked the lady about it to see if he could buy it for me. She told him it was in a garage, and she wasn’t going to drive it anymore because she didn’t like driving, and she had moved to town and only lived a short distance from the plant.
Well she brought my father up to look at it. It was a black Willys coup – the same thing as an Army jeep only it had a steel cab instead of canvas. It was cherry and Dad bought it for $100 and said I could have it as soon as I could come up with a hundred bucks. Well, I scrounged and raised the hundred bucks and got it registered, went down and put the plates on it, and brought it home. This was a real beauty, not a scratch on it, and it took a marvelous shine when you put the car wax and some elbow grease to it.
I had it about a month, when Buddy came over to stay for a few days. It was a hot summer evening in August and I suggested we drive to town and pick up a quart of orange soda, and we would share it – so we did. By the time we got there and bought the soda and had a few swigs, it became about dark and we headed home. Bud began talking about how his father had been letting him drive his car so when he was 16 he would know how and could get his license. (There was no driver training back then.) So, I got it in my head, as I was his older cousin, that I probably should let him drive as soon as we got back on the dirt road. (Dumb thought, Buddy was born a wheeler-dealer and nobody knew that any better than I.) I certainly should have known better. Anyway, when we got to Greenland Bend on the way home there is a turn out, and I pulled over, stopped the car and said, “Do you want to drive?” Of course, he said, “Sure,” so we polished off the soda, tossed the bottle on the back seat. I got out and he slid over. And, I got in on the other side. He got the old girl fired up and away we went.
Greenland Bend is a challenge even for a snake, and I soon realized he’s been giving me a line of bull. He didn’t know beans about driving but we finally got around all those corners. Then you drop down off the main road onto the Bonnyvale Rd. and across an old wooden bridge on which there is three planks on each side where your wheels are supposed to be. We were only chugging along in 2nd gear, but Bud missed the plank. He’s way to the right. I reached over and grabbed the wheel to try to correct the problem, but too little too late. Leaning against the bridge is an old elm tree and we ended up hitting the tree with the right front fender…CRUNCH!
Well, the old girl hit the tree and those old bumpers had some spring in them, and we bounced back a few inches. The car sat there and kind of teetered a bit, then the back wheel slid over, and the car teetered some more. Next thing I knew, we were in the water upside down – 14 feet straight down. Thank God there wasn’t much water in the brook. The lights were still on. I said, “Bud, go shut the lights off,” and he did.
We stood on the bank for a minute. My heart was broke. My Willys had a busted windshield and a crushed roof, and a big hole in the radiator. There’s a house about 150 yards up on the bank, and somebody hollered down, “You boys alright?”
“Yup,” I answered. “I’ll call my father.”
“I already did,” he hollered back. How in the world did he know who we were? It was pitch black. I still don’t have the answer to that question.
Well, Dad came down with his car and a few men gathered around. We tipped the car over and Dad took us home and harnessed up the ole horses Dick and Bub and I rode them down. Dick pulled the car out for us and dragged it all the way home (2 miles).
We dragged the car out behind the barn. I tinkered on it for a while and got it running the next summer. I was logging up to Halifax, and I drove it every day, but the radiator leaked so I had to put 5 gallons of water in to get up there and 5 more to get back. I would never be able to get the car inspected again.
Nothing was ever said about what happened or why. Case closed.
Stuart Cheney grew up on a 145 acre diversified farm near Brattleboro, VT. He resides on the farm in a small 5 room house built by his grandfather in 1940.
To read Lindsay Debach’s story, “Slaughter Daughter”, which inspired the Cheney-Debach correspondence, see https://smallfarms.cornell.edu/quarterly/archive-2/winter-2012/.